Waters unleashed by the opening of a key Mississippi River floodway crept through the Louisiana bayou Monday in a surge that could leave thousands of homes and farms under as much as 20 feet of water.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was continuing to open floodgates at the Morganza Spillway northwest of Baton Rouge in an effort to spare the state capital as well as New Orleans from being flooded by a swollen Mississippi River.
The opening — a move last taken in 1973 — will channel water into the Atchafalaya River basin, toward towns and farmland that line a giant swamp.
Waters will crest at lower levels than originally predicted in Morgan City, Butte LaRose and other cities in the floodwaters’ path, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal said. He added that no deaths or injuries had been reported.
But the possibility of “backwater flooding” for areas not protected by levees and earthen works was still high, the Republican governor said. “We are still looking at a very significant amount of water,” Jindal said. “We know it’s going to impact households. We know it’s going to impact families.”
Weeks of heavy rains and runoff from an unusually snowy winter caused the Mississippi River to rise, flooding 3 million acres of farmland in Mississippi, Tennessee and Arkansas and evoking comparisons to historic floods in 1927 and 1937.
The bulge of water released by those rains was still upriver and making its way toward Louisiana. In Vicksburg, Mississippi, the Mississippi River’s height swelled to 56.3 feet, eclipsing the record set in 1927.
In Morgan City, a coastal town about 100 miles from the Morganza Spillway, the Louisiana National Guard and construction crews scrambled to bolster levees and erect new flood defenses, with floodwaters forecast to arrive Tuesday.
City officials said the levee system should handle record river levels but expressed concern about potential backwater flooding that could occur from water receding shoreward after it reached the Gulf of Mexico.
“Outside of a major change to the estimates, we think we’re going to be fine,” Morgan City Mayor Tim Matte said. “We do believe we are prepared for the levels they are now forecasting.”
Floodwaters Could Linger for Weeks
About 2,500 people live in the spillway’s flood path and 22,500 others, along with 11,000 buildings could be affected by backwater flooding — the water pushed back into streams and tributaries that cannot flow normally into what will be an overwhelmed Atchafalaya River.
Some 3,000 square miles of land could be inundated for several weeks. When flows peak around May 22, the spillway will carry about 125,000 cubic feet per second, about one quarter of its capacity.
Jindal estimated the state’s crop damage at $300 million.
Failing to open the spillway would have put New Orleans at risk of flooding that, according to computer models, would eclipse that seen during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when about 80 percent of the city was flooded and 1,500 people killed.
River levels have hit their peak in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, located 45 miles (72 km) southeast of the Morganza Spillway, and are not expected to rise, officials said.
Opening the gates also lowers the risk of flooding for eight refineries and at least one nuclear power plant that are nestled along the river downstream from the spillway.
The refineries make up about 12 percent of the nation’s capacity for making gasoline and other fuels.
A small refinery in Krotz Springs, the 80,000 barrel-per-day plant operated by Alon USA Energy should also be safe from flood waters due to new levees built in recent weeks.
(Additional reporting by Erwin Seba in Houston and Jacob Batte in Vicksburg, Miss.; Writing by Chris Baltimore)
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